“The Greatest Feeling in the World’’
Wynton Bernard went viral when he told his mother he had reached the Show. Life hasn’t been quite the same since
By Jerry Crasnick
Wynton Bernard has mastered a variety of useful non-baseball skills since his professional career began in 2012. Among them: Packing on the fly, making friends easily, eating on a budget, learning how to grab sleep in bite-sized chunks on buses and airplanes, and taking setbacks in stride and always embracing the next opportunity.
Bernard never attracted much attention until last August, when the Colorado Rockies summoned him to the majors and he shared the news with his mother in a heartwarming phone call.
From the moment the tearful exchange went viral, Bernard came to embody the personal commitment of longtime minor leaguers -- and the loved ones who support them -- as they navigate the obstacles of a business that often treats them as disposable.
At age 32, Bernard is still grinding away this spring with the Toronto Blue Jays’ Triple-A farm club in Buffalo, N.Y. This is his 13 professional town -- or 20th, if you include winter ball and/or non-affiliated stops in Mexico, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Australia and two appearances with the then Sugar Land Skeeters in Texas.
As Bernard embraces his new status as the patron saint of baseball strivers/survivors, his story continues to resonate in and beyond the game. During a recent conversation with the MLBPA, he reflected on his experiences while looking forward to the next chapter in his career. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
You attained a whole new level of recognition with that video. How did it come about?
How did you feel when your mom, Janet -- aka ‘Mama B’ -- received so much attention from the video?
She’s gone through so many struggles in her life. After my dad passed away, she had to take on the role of mom and dad. That was inspiring for me. When I do my workouts, I think about my dad doing (kidney) dialysis. I think about my mom taking care of my dad. I'm thinking about my brother going to Poway High School and dealing with all the racism. He found a sheet with the ‘N’ word written on it saying, ‘You can't sit here.’ I think, ‘If they can go through all that and get where they want to be,’ then I can definitely keep striving, no matter what I go through.
Brandon Gold, one of my teammates, was the one who filmed it and first posted it. Then our radio announcer Josh Suchon posted it and the word just kept getting out. When Steve Harvey posted it, that made it go viral. All these people starting reaching out and saying how much I was inspiring them. It was really, really powerful.
Telling my mom that I made it to the big leagues is something I always dreamed of as a kid. Obviously I wanted my dad to be there, too. Your parents work so hard their whole life just doing everything for you. To tell her, ‘Mom, I made it to the big leagues and you're gonna see me playing in person tomorrow,’ it was the greatest feeling in the world.
Your father Walter, died after suffering a stroke while you were in college. What was his impact on you?
I think of my dad every day. I made a special connection with him through baseball, because he was always the one taking me to my games. He didn’t know anything about baseball. He didn't know anything about sports, really, until my brothers started playing. But he said, ‘Whatever you want to do. I'll be fully supportive. I don't need to spend money for myself. I'm gonna spend it on you guys.’ Sometimes when my mom comes to games, I'll leave an extra ticket for my dad and imagine that they’re sitting together.
Were you taken aback by the response to your personal story?
I didn't know that video was gonna blow up or anything, but I started hearing the most random stories from people. One girl told me, ‘I work in a job in a (mostly) male profession, and everyone keeps telling me, ‘You should give up.’’ She told me, ‘You know what? I’m going to keep going.’ That made me so happy, because (people have) seen what I've gone through and I was inspiring them in return.
It kind of changed your life, didn’t it?
It's just been mountains, valleys, peaks -- the whole nine yards. So I would say this changed my life in terms of ultimately reaching my goal. And not only that, but inspiring other people. I think that's the whole purpose of life -- you want to have a positive impact on others. That's my biggest goal. I want to be able to impact people in a positive way and obviously do the best I can on the baseball field.
You achieved your career goal when the Rockies called you up from Albuquerque. What stands out from your debut?
Everything felt like a dream the whole time. Going out to center field that first time, looking up at the stadium and just going, ‘I really did this. We’re here now and let’s stay here.’ Walking up to the plate for the first time, too. My walkup song came on -- ‘God’s Plan’ (by Drake) -- and I got the chills. Stepping in the box, I could feel myself digging in my cleats and taking a deep breath like I have my whole career, then battling my butt off. I’ll always remember my first at-bat, my first hit, and my stolen base. I came into the clubhouse afterward and looked at my locker and my jersey, and it still felt like it was a dream. I replay it a lot in my head, and obviously I want to do it again.
Did you save any mementos?
I saved everything. I’ve got all my jerseys and the ball from my first hit. I’ve got my bat, my cleats and the lineup card. I’ve given a couple of things to my mom, and there are things I want to save as memories or to give to my future kids.
You’re a San Diego kid who played college ball at Niagara University in upstate New York. How did that come to pass?
I was getting attention in high school, but no one was offering me a full scholarship, so my parents didn’t think they could afford it. USC and Oregon were looking at me about a walk-on spot, and my parents were like, ‘You really have to go where you’re wanted.’ Rob McCoy, the coach at Niagara, called me and said, ‘You’re the player we’re looking for.’ He offered me a scholarship right then and there, and I took it.
How much of a culture shock was Lewiston, N.Y., in the winter?
My mom said, ‘Make sure you layer up when it snows,’ so I brought like four jackets to class. And everybody was like, ‘What is this kid doing?’ I’ll never forget: A girl on the soccer team told me, ‘You do not need that many jackets. You just need one big jacket.’
You were a 35th round draft pick by the Padres in 2012. What was your signing bonus?
A big old $1,000. It wasn’t much money at the time. I saw guys signing for thousands and millions of dollars, but I was happy. I was like, ‘Dang, I’ve got a good check coming. It’ll be like $600-700 (after taxes).’
In your first full season, you played in the Arizona League, Lake Elsinore, California; Fort Wayne, Indiana; and Eugene, Oregon. How chaotic was that?
I played Rookie Ball in 2012, and I got to hit with Phil Plantier. We created this bond and this relationship where I was a 35th round pick and he didn’t even care. He said, ‘I’ll be willing to work with you as much as you want.’ (The Padres) were planning to release me that spring, but I had such a good spring training they really couldn’t. Then I bounced around with all those teams. It was crazy. I kept saying, ‘It is what it is. I’m going to get my shot some kind of way.’
How flexible do you have to be when you move around that much?
You’ve got to make adjustments quick and be ready to go. You never know when a flight might leave at 6 o’clock the next morning. Once you’re at the hotel or a different apartment, you try not to leave everything all over the place. You want to be in and out in an hour. That’s my time limit.
Things are changing for minor leaguers now that they’re unionized and have a new labor agreement, but you didn’t make much money all those years. How resourceful did you have to be with your food budget?
It's funny. Growing up, I hated peanut butter. I was OK with jelly. But that became my go-to meal from 2013-2015. We didn't have a big spread in the clubhouse. It was all turkey sandwiches, and those got old after a couple of months. So I learned real quick that I could make a PB&J sandwich and that would fill me up for the game. It’s tough, because we weren’t getting paid a lot, and if you went out and spent a whole bunch on food, you didn’t have a lot of money left for rent and other things.
What were the biggest setbacks along the way? Did you have a lot of injuries?
Sometimes I would go on what they called the ‘phantom IL,’ where I wasn’t really injured, but they would say you were injured because they needed to activate a pitcher or another player. You don’t want other teams to think, ‘This guy is hurt all the time.’ So that bothered me. But I would rather do that than get released. I was still able to practice with the team and keep getting better. I just tried to take a positive mindset towards it.
You were released by the Padres in 2014 and signed with Detroit.
I went to an open tryout in Lakeland, Fla. There were two random guys there wearing cowboy boots, and other guys who had won college championships or played a couple years of pro ball. I was the only guy out of 120 people there who signed. Sixty guys got cut. Then another 40 guys got cut. It was the craziest thing. Finally it was just me and another guy from the University of Miami. They asked us to run the 60-yard dash. I ran a 6.4, and then another 6.4, and they said, ‘We need you to stick around a little bit.’ When one door closes, another one opens. That was one of the best days of my life. I had worked so hard all winter, and everything came together.
Through all those years in the minors, what allowed you to keep finding jobs?
Everybody always talked about my speed, but I always felt like I was a really good hitter. It’s one of those things where I had to work, work, work. I had good bat-to-ball skills and I’ve been able to hit at every stop, but it hasn’t been easy by any means. I'm always studying pitchers. I’m always working hard on the side, talking to people in the middle of a game or looking at my swing in the mirror when I go home at night. It’s a combination of everything.
Was there a point where you felt like quitting?
It never really dawned on me, because I've always felt like if I just keep getting better, things are going to fall where they may. The older I've gotten, the wiser I’ve become. I never really had that moment where I was like, ‘I can't do this.’ It was always, ‘How can I get better?’
Your international stops in Venezuela, Australia and Mexico make your career look like a travelogue.
Venezuela was just a good atmosphere. Everybody on the team was almost like a family. But they live and die with baseball there.
Australia felt a lot like home -- like San Diego. The whole time I was there, everybody was super cool. We would go to the beach every day after practice.
I played in Monterrey in ’19 and Mexicali in ’21. I hit the first home run in winter ball in Monterrey and I didn't even realize what a big deal it was. Every game there feels like a party. You get a base hit, and everybody's celebrating and cheering and chanting. You could flip your bat or do anything you want, and nobody cares. I loved it down there (in Mexico).
Did any cultural things surprise you or stick with you?
In Venezuela, I gave one of the maids $10 and she just started crying. When you were about to throw food in the trash, kids would run up and snatch it away so they would have something to eat. It was super, super sad. Hopefully the situation has gotten better. It was so different from the way I grew up. I think it made me appreciate life way, way more.
Do you think of people outside your family who have helped you during your career?
My first year of pro ball I became close with Anthony Renteria, Rich Renteria’s son. I created a special bond with him that I’m super grateful for, and I’ll never forget. Phil Plantier is probably the biggest one, by far. David Justice has been a huge influence. There’s Ellis Burks, and Ken Griffey Jr., and Kenny Lofton. Vince Coleman has taught me so much about stealing bases. And it’s off-the-field stuff, too. These guys taught me how to go about my business and shared the ins and outs of life and all the stuff they’ve gone through. To have that relationship with them is pretty special.
My former agent, Matt Marks, and my current agent, John Boggs, have been supportive of me every step of the way -- from getting released to independent ball. They're always pushing for me on and off the field and helping me navigate every obstacle -- which I'm super grateful for.
You’ve mentioned in the past that Ken Griffey Jr. was your favorite player growing up. Have you ever met him personally?
I've never met him in person. But I got to know James Loney, and he said, ‘I read that Ken Griffey Jr. is your favorite player. He said you can call him anytime you want.’ The first time I called him I was shaking. I was like, ‘Ken?’ I didn’t know if I should call him Junior or (Mr.) Griffey or what. And he was like, ‘Man, anytime you need me, just give me a call.’ I asked him a whole bunch of questions and I still do, because in this game you never have everything figured out. He always gives me good advice.
Your career path was obviously a lot different. As someone who spent a decade striving to reach the majors, what advice would you give to players in a similar position?
I would say, ‘It’s all worth it.’ It really is. It might not seem that way, but it's closer than you think if you just keep pushing and keep grinding through. It's all going to be worth it someday.